Short Fiction by Sarah Frances Armstrong
The factions take their positions. Families fragment: you do casual, I’ll meet you in school wear- good luck. Elbows jab and jostle. Rails choke with workshop-sewn T-shirts. Threads hang from frayed edges like miniature trip-wires. Shoppers duck and dive behind shoes that are piled head-high on racks. Luminous leggings spew from bulging two-for-one buckets like toxic waste. Cries and shouts bounce off the walls, shattering into fragments of sound. The windows are blacked out.
Laura takes a breath, plunges into the children’s trouser section. Sweat stings her eyes and her hands grope in the darkness. She grabs anything she can, then she comes up for air. Re-emerging into the aisle, she wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, then surveys the products of her efforts. Green trousers, about Amelia’s size. Not pink, a clear violation of the brief. Shit. There’ll be tears. She should go back, get a pink pair. It’ll save a lot of hassle in the long run. Or, she could just say that green’s the new pink. Convince Amelia that green is better. Shrek is green. But what six-and-a-half-year-old wants to look like Shrek? It will be a tricky sell. Well, Tinkerbell has green trousers. Easier. And that woman who presents the Sunday cartoon show that they are forced to endure on a regular basis. The one who Amelia loves, demented blonde, raves about Peppa Pig in such a manner as to suggest a likely chemical enhancement of her personality. She’s definitely in possession of several green items. Besides, the green trousers will match perfectly with a pink…
Amelia isn’t where she left her.
Where has the little bugger disappeared to? She told her to stay put. She scans the top of heads, sweeping over browns and blondes looking for a fierce red. All around, there are kids-fighting, grabbing, screaming. Her eyes flick from one to the next, rejecting, moving on. Amelia is nowhere to be seen. Laura feels the familiar surge of annoyance, that recedes into a resignation. Another Saturday ruined.
She sighs, and steps back into the pit, shoulder down, head tucked in. There is a sweat-and -tears pungency to the air, and she takes a deep breath and holds it. She lifts whole sections of clothing at once, searching underneath, eyes primed for that bright red hair. Clothes fall off their hangers, and behind her, a trail of party-dresses with white glitter fairy wings lay lifeless in her wake. She only turned her back for a second, one bloody second. How far can Amelia have got in one second? Especially on those stumpy legs? She can’t be very far. Laura barges past a woman holding a purple tracksuit up to a reluctant teenage boy, whose face is contorted with acne and repugnance. She accidently knocks the polyester disaster out of the woman’s hands. The woman tuts, glares at her. She shakes her head and looks away.
She pushes aside fluffy pyjamas and peers into the belly of the rails underneath. Amelia must be hiding somewhere. She probably burrowed her way into the clothing mountain to make a den. She can’t blame her for that really- this place is hideous. That said, it’s her bloody fault that they are here at all. Sod the new trousers, as soon as she is found, they are getting out of this hell and out into daylight, if such a thing still exists.
She can’t have got far. She must be somewhere in this area. Shit, where the hell is she? Laura runs her hands through her hair, feels the warm seep of sweat spreading in her underarms. Calm down. Think strategically. Where would she head? Toys. Do they have a toy section? Would Amelia know where it was? God, the kid won’t go to the loo by herself, she surely won’t attempt the cuddly toy aisle. She won’t be in the women’s lingerie section, will she? You never know, with that child. Laura sighs, ploughs herself into the satin and lace. This is a waste of time. She’s probably sitting in a pile of clothes, singing to herself, in her La La land of milk and cookies. We could have been home by now. What a complete fucking waste of a day. Laura pulls a bra off the shelf, winces, puts it back. Who’d wear a leopard print bra? Jesus, look at how padded it is. You could get shot in the boob at point-blank range wearing that and not feel a thing…
Michael appears on the horizon. He lifts his long legs up, steps over a crumpled sweater as if it is a landmine. His head is stiff and high: he inhabits his own stratosphere, like he breathes the air above all this low-level pollution. He eyes dart in his head, side to side, as if he is afraid to look at anything for too long, lest he be absorbed in its chaos. He reaches Laura, rests his large hand on her shoulder then flicks up his sleeve to glance at his watch.
‘I came to see what’s taking so long. We’ll never get there at this rate…’ His voice is crisp, burnt at the edges.
‘She’s wandered off.’
‘Wandered off? What do you mean, wandered off?’
‘Wandered off, as in, I can’t find her.’
‘Well, where did you last see her?’
‘Over there. I left her by the mirror, and when I turned around she’d…’
‘Have you looked around?’ his voice becomes hot and high, stretched like an elastic band. He turns to face her; his cheeks are red and his hazel eyes have hard edges.
‘You take this side, I’ll take that side, we’ll meet in the middle.’
Laura nods, watches him stride off towards the other side of the shop, his back receding into the jungle of clothes. Then, she pivots around slowly, standing on tiptoes, twirling like a ballerina, trying to see up over the chaos for a little matchstick girl. Nothing. A wave of coldness spreads through her, and she feels a chill over the damp of her skin. Amelia’s been snatched. But who’d want her? The thought sparks, then ignites before she can extinguish it. Fuck. She cups her head in her moist palms, feels the gnaw of a headache in her temples. I am a terrible, terrible person.
The excursion had begun as badly as it was ending. The trip was Michael’s idea, born out of the not-entirely baseless notion that the child needed some culture instilling into her. He had woken in one of his good moods, and Laura had felt the day stretched out before her in that soft, Saturday sort of way. He was whistling as he frothed up shower-gel all over her exfoliating mitt, and lathered it into the folds of his underarms. He bent his head around the steamed-up shower screen, his hair a candy-floss of shampoo, and said,
‘We should take Amelia to see Buckingham Palace, the Strand, maybe a show. You know, do the Central London thing.’
Laura rammed a toothbrush in her mouth. She looked at her face in the mirror, the dark circles that had taken up permanent residence under her eyes, the creases that seemed carved into her forehead. There was the shadow of youth there, somewhere, in the roundness of the cheeks perhaps, but it was fading. She sighed, scraped the toothbrush hard over her teeth.
‘Central London will be rammed today’ she said, mouth full of foam and bristles. It came out hen-hal hun-dun hill he hammed hu-hah.
He didn’t pause, replied straight away. Is this when you know you’ve been married too long?
‘It’s rammed every Saturday. We should definitely take her. Lord knows, that mother of hers won’t.’ He hocked some phlegm back in his throat, spat it into the plughole.
Laura ran her tongue over her teeth. Michael’s criticism of her predecessor always had a certain deliciousness to it.
She smiled a clean, minty smile. ‘Of course we should take her.’
She leant around the screen and into the shower for a soapy kiss, her hair becoming misted with the spray of the shower. He took her face in his wet hands and kissed her forehead.
How nice it was to be the reasonable one.
The 91 bus route took 37 minutes, end to end. Laura had never timed it before, but now, each minute slammed into her thoughts like a stream-roller.
‘What’s that, Lawa?’ The tip of Amelia’s short finger was pressed against the bus window. Laura tried not took look at the chipping-off nail varnish and the dirt under her fingernails.
‘A cafe.’ She replied, with as much enthusiasm as could reasonably be injected into three syllables.
‘A corner shop.’
But the highlight for Amelia was the LED display. This engendered a sort of stupefied (but alas, not silent) fascination.
‘What does that say, Lawa?’
’91 to Trafalgar.’
‘What does it say underneath?’
’11 26. That’s the time.’
A flicker of the display, a dancing of the digits.
‘What does it say now, Lawa?’
The Saturday traffic was against them, the turn and halt, the rumble and stall of engines. Sweat trickled between Laura’s breasts, and the fabric of her blouse clung to her as if she’d been gift-wrapped. The air was still. The odour of armpits sat stagnant as a cloud. Someone coughed. Someone else opened a window. Twenty minutes limped past. Laura felt a tug at her sleeve, a whimpering emerged from the next seat. Amelia’s eyes were red, and her freckled face glinted with tears.
‘What’s the matter, sweetie?’
Laura scrabbled in her handbag, as if hope alone could make a bottle of Evian emerge from behind her iPhone.
‘I haven’t got any water. Can you wait? We’ve only got a few more minutes, and we’ll be there. Then, we’ll get you a drink.’
The whimpering got louder, as if a whole litter of puppies were being jabbed simultaneously with sticks. Tears spilled into Amelia’s lap. Laura tried to ignore her, but people were noticing, looking at Laura with hard, puzzled stares. She tapped Michael’s shoulder, a bit harder than was necessary.
‘We need to get off at the next stop.’
‘But we’re only at…’
‘She crying- she needs a drink…’
He pressed the button with a resigned forefinger. They battled through the wall of people, who scrabbled over their empty seats like dogs on scraps.
Caledonian road, home to computer repair shops selling no-questions-asked-laptops. Saree shops glittering with red-and-gold promise. Late night chicken shops serving deep fried E.coli, graffitied shutters firmly closed at this time of day.
Not a cafe in sight.
Laura sat Amelia on a wooden bench, between a patch of bird-shit and a discarded Styrofoam of cold chips. Pigeons pecked at their feet, eyeing the chips hopefully with their glass-bead eyes. Amelia’s faced screwed up and she began to cry, great heaving sobs that racked her body as if she were in the throes of death.
‘Amelia, Daddy has gone to get you a drink. There is no point crying because it won’t make him come back any quicker.’
The sobs heaved on. Jesus, it was like trying to reason with Al Qaeda. May as well give up and just wait for reinforcements. Finally, from around the corner, Michael appeared. The soft auburn of his hair, his broad shoulders, square against his tall frame. He had a grace to him, as if his surroundings couldn’t touch him. The greyness of the street with its birdshit stains and smog-covered houses slid off him like he was Teflon. He floated through the air, and the world parted to let him through. Laura felt the thump-and-flutter in her stomach as she watched him brandish a carton of sugar and coloured water as triumphantly as if it were the Nobel peace prize.
They’d got back on the bus, at the Caledonian Road stop, fluid replete and re-energised. The 91’s successor was even hotter, and without the luxury of empty seats. But it was thankfully only four stops to go. When they arrived in Central London, the bus spat them out in a belch of black fumes and they tumbled onto the pavement. Laura gulped in the air and steadied herself. She and Michael looked at each other with ‘here goes’ expressions. First stop, Buckingham Palace. Laura wanted to sink upon her heels. Buckingham palace may as well have been Mars.
‘Let’s go and see the Queen!’ Michael smiled, his voice as bright as an over-polished button. He held the map high, as if it were a flag and he an explorer leading his people.
‘The Queen!’ Amelia chorused. Laura smiled, grabbed her hand and they turned, strong, resolute, ploughing through the people.
Fifteen minutes later, Amelia stopped walking, and dropped Laura’s hand. Her face crumpled, her pale features blurring into a void, and she began to whimper. She wedged her hand between her legs, and hopped from foot to foot as if the pavement was on fire. She didn’t utter a word. Laura felt the slow swell of panic within her.
‘What’s the matter now Amelia?’ Laura cooed in pseudo-saccharine tones.
Still the wordless whimpering. Amelia looked up, eyes wide, wider, widest. Laura shrugged her shoulders and folded her arms in front of her chest. If Amelia wanted this exchange to take place entirely in the medium of mime, so be it. People pushed past. Amelia bent down, then crouched upon the pavement like a predator ready to pounce, rocking backwards and forward on her heels.
‘Stand-up Sweetie, you are in people’s way.’
A low rumble gurgled deep in her throat, and her eyes stared unseeing into the crowd.
‘If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, how can I help?’ High-pitched desperation seeped through the cracks in Laura’s voice. She looked around for Michael, but he was several paces ahead, face buried in a map. Navigating.
Laura tried to drag Amelia to her feet but she was stone-boulder heavy. Passers-by walked around them, heads swivelled on necks. Some- parents Laura suspected- shot her pitiful glances. Her face was hot, and the buttons of her blouse felt like chain-mail against her chest. She didn’t resent the clicking of stranger’s tongues, or the ‘children of today’ shakes of heads, residing firmly on the side of these accusers rather than with the little Beelzebub rocking at her feet. She wished that she too could glance, tut, then walk away. She stood, still and helpless, watching the world continue around them.
A wet patch appeared on the front of Amelia’s jeans. It started as a spot, then steadily seeped its way across the fabric. Amelia looked at her with tear-filled eyes. Laura stared back.
‘Never mind.’ Laura’s voice was light with enforced joviality. ‘We’ll get you a new pair.’
Frankie and Benny’s emerged on the horizon like a striped mirage. (Thanks, instant-gratification culture.) First stop: the bathroom. Laura held the wet jeans under the hand drier, whilst Amelia sat on the toilet ‘just in case’. A series of plops followed, like hailstones hitting a pond. A toilet situation of the more delicate variety. Laura felt repugnance wash over her as she parted the small white arse cheeks and pressed flimsy loo-roll onto smeared shit. Springing forth love where it doesn’t naturally flow, she thought, is as futile as trying to quell its torrents when it exists less requited.
She was an expert in both fields.
If love could not be instantly procured, then thankfully chocolate ice -cream could. They sank, shipwrecked, into a low-seated booth. Amelia brightened at the sight of a Knickerbocker glory: Laura at the wine list. Michael ordered an espresso.
‘I’ll have a sauvignon’, mumbled Laura.
He looked up, reached for Laura’s hand across the table. Squeezed it. Her wedding ring flashed in the 40-watt light. Their eyes met across the sauce-stained table. His hazel eyes softened with a look of such gratitude that Laura knew that she would have wiped the shit off Osama Bin Laden’s arse if he had so asked. She took his large hand in both of hers and kissed it. They exhaled.
Amelia started to sing, as tuneful as a drone strike, shattering the moment into splinters on the tiles.
‘Lawa’ Amelia said, holding two ice-cream covered hands across the table. Laura fumbled in her handbag for the wipes.
‘They’re sticky, Lawa.’
Amelia shoved another mouthful of ice-cream in her mouth. Followed it up with a waffle. She was easier to like, with her mouth full. Laura sipped the cool wine, felt the sparkle on her tongue. Tried not to think about the fact that this is how fifty percent of her weekends would be now spent. Until death they did part. Laura’s sister, whilst pushing scrambled egg into the mouth of her reluctant two-year-old, had said, it could be worse, it could be a hundred percent. Yes. Thank goodness for her prematurely -failing, quite frankly forward-thinking ovaries.
Laura looked around at the people in the restaurant, as they spooned salted-caramel sundaes into their mouths and sipped coke through striped straws. This is how people with kids spent their weekends. Drugging them with e-numbers whilst drowning out their own despair with white wine spritzers.
A baby sat in a high chair on the neighbouring table. He was a chubby little thing, with a tuft of hair that defied gravity and big blue eyes. He was busy tapping a pepper pot with a plastic spoon. He looked up, and smiled at Laura with a gummy smile that revealed a solo tooth. Her own might have been different.
She stamped on the thought before it could grow roots.
After the Ice-cream, they headed for the shops. Can’t see the queen with pee on your jeans. The street felt dizzyingly bright after the low light of the booth, and the sauvignon buzzed softly in Laura’s ear. The crowd bothered her less. She grabbed Amelia’s hand and entered the throng, allowed herself to get carried along with the tide. They bobbed along with the swell of the people, and eventually washed up at Primark’s door.
The store manager is short and young with flecks of dandruff on his T-shirt. ‘What does she look like?’ He asks the questions seriously, puts the emphasis on the word look, holds a stub of a pencil in his hand as if he is about to draw an e-fit.
What if she has been snatched? Michael will never forgive her. And that bipolar mother of hers’ll want blood. Already fisting for a fight. Come on, Amelia, where the hell are you?
‘Well, she’s this high’ Michael bends his knees and waves his hand as if his is patting an invisible dog.
The store manager writes something in his pad. Jesus, he could translate that?
‘Yes? What else?’
Laura interjects. ‘Can’t you put an announcement over the tannoy?’
‘We haven’t got a tannoy’
She slides her arm around Michael’s waist. ‘Well, can you call the police?’
The store manager looks at her as if she has kicked him hard in the testicles. Then he goes off to make the call. They stand waiting, Michael’s hands are clasped in hers. Under the bright lights, his skin is grey and his eyes are bloodshot. His hand trembles slightly in hers. She draws him to her, pulls his broad shoulders into her chest, inhaling the shampoo scent of him.
They turn. The small form of Amelia appears, wearing a lopsided pink Tiara and clutching a large furry toy dog. The dog falls to the floor as Amelia hurls herself at Laura, knocking the breath out of her body. Two small arms wrap themselves around Laura’s waist, and a bright red head nestles into her as if burrowing under her skin. Amelia looks up at Laura. Her eyelids look like they have been made from puff-pastry, and her face is smudged with tears. There is a string of snot dangling from one nostril. Her tiara is crooked, its pink fur taffled in her matted red hair.
‘I was losted.’ She sniffs. ‘But I’ve found you now.’ Amelia straightens her tiara and wipes her nose on Laura’s jeans. Her arms coil around Laura’s legs like a boa constrictor.